Ireland vs England Six Nations: Andy Farrell backs England enforcers to carry fight

Coach predicts no lack of aggression in Dublin despite losing key men

England may be travelling to Dublin for this weekend’s supercharged Six Nations match against Ireland without their two most belligerent backs – outside-half Owen Farrell, who will play no part in this tournament because of a knee injury, and full-back Mike Brown, ruled out after failing to shake off a bout of concussion – but the toughest member of the red-rose coaching team is rejecting talk of an aggression deficit.

Andy Farrell, father of Owen and a man who knows what it is to prevail in the Irish capital as well as sink without trace, was in trenchant mood yesterday. “I wouldn’t say we’ll be short of aggression,” he argued. “The important thing is to have the right balance in the team, and we feel we have the enforcers to make an impact on this game.”

This will come as some relief to battalions of England supporters who have been fearing the worst ever since Brown was knocked cold in the early stages of the contest with Italy at Twickenham a dozen days ago. His replacement, Alex Goode of Saracens, is by some distance the more complete footballer – a playmaking midfielder by upbringing, he is far more of an ideas man and an infinitely better distributor – but as Anglo-Irish meetings tend to be just a little on the rugged side, for deep-rooted historical reasons, the street fighter often carries more weight than the creative artist.

Farrell Snr helped coach England to victory at Lansdowne Road in 2013, six years after playing in the side that was reduced to its component parts at Croke Park, the Gaelic Games cathedral on the other side of town. “What we found that day in 2007 was that Ireland have the capability to hit the ground running,” he recalled. “It’s essential to give yourselves a foothold in the game, and we didn’t do it on that occasion. But those are the experiences that help a team roll with the punches.

“These England players have had their ups and downs and, as a result, they’re more composed now. We know Ireland will be at their best because they have players who will get them to that level, but I believe we’ve learnt valuable lessons from performing in some of the sport’s toughest environments.”

 

Brown’s chances of continuing in the No 15 shirt, never particularly good, finally evaporated when he complained of a headache following a running session on Tuesday – the second stage in a six-part “graduated return to play” process introduced to improve the management of concussion cases. “He doesn’t have severe symptoms, but it’s not worth the risk,” said Farrell. “Yes, he’s an experienced player who stands up in pressure situation, but Alex has been exceptional in big games this season.”

Of England’s remaining “enforcers”, the combustible hooker Dylan Hartley is probably the most prominent, although he identifies the heavyweight Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola as a more persuasive candidate. In fact, Hartley would rather be known as anything but an enforcer right now, largely because his colourful disciplinary record continues to define him.

“I’ve made a conscious decision to keep my head down and let my rugby do the talking, which is why you haven’t seen me for a few weeks,” he said on his reappearance in a public session. “I’m doing my best to change perceptions, but it’s hard – partly because, every now and then, I do something that keeps the perception alive.

“I prefer to think of myself as a worker rather than an enforcer, someone who concentrates on performing his role, especially at the set-piece, which is my first priority. The scrum and line-out are so important, and I think those areas will be crucial against Ireland. They’re third in the world rankings, they’re the Six Nations holders and I quite like the fact that they’re perceived to be better than us because it gives us underdog status. But we shouldn’t be scared of saying that we want to be champions this time round.”

Finn Russell, the Scotland outside-half widely considered to have been harshly treated by the disciplinary panel which gave him a two-week ban for dangerous play during the game with Wales on 15 February, lost his appeal yesterday and will therefore miss Saturday’s match with Italy at Murrayfield.

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